What should I study?
May 28, 2012 1:07 AM   Subscribe

What should I look into researching regarding language acquisition (ESL) for my masters degree in Japan?

I've lived in Japan for about five or six years now, speak Japanese more or less fluently, did a boat load of study abroad programs in college, and moved here after graduation. Having worked in eikaiwa first and JHS second (and still now), I definitely feel that education is where the fun money is; it's definitely not where LOTS of fun money is, though. With this in mind, and because it seems like everyone I know is doing it, I'm interested in acquiring the monbukagakusho scholarship so I can study at some suitably (overly) prestigious university like Toudai or Keio. This definitely seems to be the right way to pursue my passion and help the students of Japan at the same time.
The problem is this: I have no idea what research proposal might be most likely to get me the scholarship come interview time. I'd like to focus on education/English as a second language. From what I'm told, it's more important that the proposal/idea be "awesome" rather than "feasible," as I'll be able to re-tool it once I get the money and the acceptance of the university.
I want to continue being an educator in Japan, but would like to work either at the private jhs/hs level or university level.
posted by GoingToShopping to Education (5 answers total)
It sounds to me like you need to find out exactly what you are interested in. Going to graduate school because you want the MA to further your career is doable, but will be a huge pain in the neck. If you can find some area of linguistics or TESOL that you are into it would make the process a lot easier. Try looking online at a variety of programs both in Japan and in other countries, and you will find a bunch of different stuff that should help you get an idea of what YOU are interested in first. Once you know that, use Google Scholar to see what other people are doing in the area and then you should have a good idea of an 'awesome' proposal.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:47 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

This may well be the only time I ever recommend JALT to anyone. From my own experience, it's mostly made of a self-sustaining group of teachers trying to provide each other with a forum for presenting academic papers and research (of sometimes questionable merit/usefulness) to give them more to put on their resumes in order to a) keep their jobs, and b) create a barrier to entry for people not in the group. As you can tell, I'm not a fan, but one thing you can find their is a ton of folks with MAs who like talking about their area of focus. The annual conference can be worth going to (you could maybe convince your school to help pay for it, that's usually how most people pay). It's a massive networking free-for-all, an there are several presentations by (usually British) universities touting their distance learning programs for MATESOL or applied linguistics. You could also get some ideas by checking out some of the presentations, just be aware that the presentations can be very hit and miss in terms of quality and usefulness.

Finally, while it's not Todai, both Temple and Columbia have campuses in Tokyo, and I know several people who got their MA at Temple's Tokyo campus. It's the same as an MA from the campus in the States, and you can actually start it here and finish it there, or vice versa. It can also be completed entirely in Japan.

As for money, well, if you get a monbusho scholarship, that'd be great. Outside of that, you're looking at (going part time) at least two years and $20k for the MA. From there, realize the job market for teaching English at the university level is incredibly competitive, with ugly, ugly politics. Aside from dealing with other gaijin trying to make sure their ahead of you in the pecking order, you're facing a system which is set up to prevent you from ever getting a tenure position. Most positions are three years max with no chance to extend past then. Essentially, every three years you jump into the musical chairs game and hope you manage to grab a seat. If you make friends and connections, you might get help finding a job, or you might find yourself up against people whose friends and connections are stronger than yours.

Money-wise, you can make a good deal, but you do need to think about the cost of the MA and compare it to potential earnings. Just a thought.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:47 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not terribly interested in the idea of footing the bill myself; as for the connections thing, that's pretty much what Japanese universities are there for. I haven't settled on a final destination yet, and I'm sure I'd be as happy at a private HS as I would an international school or at the uni level.
Thanks for the advice on JALT though, I'll do some digging.
posted by GoingToShopping at 7:53 AM on May 29, 2012

God, one research topic I would love to attack is why it seems that Meiji-era Japanese-speakers-of-English seemed to be so much more proficient than their contemporaries.

The entire "Nihonjin-ron" movement of the 1970s seems to me to be one reason - the creation of the myth of Japanese-ness during the 1970s and 80s that persists today (I don't think that would be a very popular hypothesis, though).

I don't know, doing something on the history of language education might be useful, or even comparative language acquisition rates between countries. I think (although I don't have the data) that it's a myth that Japanese folks do so poorly at English. You could investigate or debunk that.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:48 PM on May 29, 2012

You know, after seeing KokuRyu's idea, one thing that struck me as an interesting area of study could be a thorough study on how much economic need plays a part in determining students' success in language acquisition. Unlike KokuRyu, I do think Japanese people are lousy at English (especially given the amount of time, however poorly used, spent on English lessons both in school and after), but I think there are much more valid reasons than the typical handwavy Nihonjin-ron that KokuRyu mentioned. Granted, I've been kicking this idea around a while, and to me it seems like a no-brainer, but it could be interesting to see actual data explaining why it is that the average learner of English in, say, Bali, Thailand, or China has a higher, more useable level of English than the average Japanese learner of English. This is, in a lot of ways, tied to the annual list of TOEIC that Japan appears at the bottom of every year (behind North Korea, even). The thing is, I don't value TOEIC as a reliable means of any value other than test taking skill. I mean actual real-world usage of English.

Aside from the whole built-in "but my research requires that I go overseas to gather data!" way of getting travel/research grants, the blunt fact of life in Japan is that being an English speaker isn't a skill set that has value at most companies in Japan. There are no bonuses, no fast track to management, in short, no cultural or economic incentive to mastering (or even acquiring basic skills in) the English language. In China, people with good English are able to access whole levels of employment than non-speakers can. In, say, Bali, where you've essentially got tourism or farming, language skill affords the opportunity to earn much higher pay in a field that doesn't involve toiling in the fields.

Of course, this is all blindingly obvious. Unfortunately, it's all anecdotal. Could be a good area for some solid research.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:17 PM on May 29, 2012

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